To say it’s been a bad year for secular culture in Egypt is a special kind of understatement, but a string of developments this month — all linked to President Mohamed Morsi’s appointments of several key positions in tourism and culture — have left observers reeling and provoked a series of bold direct actions from dissidents.
In Cairo, the Culture Ministry itself has been the site of an ongoing occupation since a group of “artists and intellectuals” stormed the building on June 5. Their objections arose over the appointment of culture minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz, a member of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and a largely inexperienced choice with minimal previous involvement in the nation’s cultural scene. In an article appearing in the English-language Ahram Online, several administrators working at the ministry commented on the rift between the newly appointed minister and the small Brotherhood entourage he brought with him and the rest of the staff at the ministry.
The occupiers, who have peacefully taken a public reception area on the main floor of the building, were initially provoked by Abdel-Aziz’s summary firings of several key figures in the ministry, and their protest has been cast in the Egyptian media as a “fight for the Egyptian cultural identity.” This issue first came to a head at the end of last month, when the unprovoked firing of the director of the Cairo Opera House, a key cultural institution, set off a wave of protests.
Meanwhile, in coastal Alexandria, a sit-in continues at the state-run Beram El-Tonsy theater, where a like-minded group has gathered to protest a broader issue extending beyond the turmoil at the culture ministry: the centralization of cultural authority in Cairo. The schism between Cairo and Alexandria, which was once Egypt’s cultural capital, has been an ongoing debate in Egyptian arts and letters, the legacy of the regime birthed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup.
News also broke yesterday that Morsi has appointed a former leader of the terrorist group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya — responsible for a tourist massacre in Luxor in 1997 — to the governorship of Luxor. Today, tourist workers throughout the city announced a strike in protest of the appointment. Luxor has been called an “open air museum” due to its density of ruins from antiquity, and the flagrant symbolism of the appointment leaves no doubt in the mind of many as to the increasing impunity that has become characteristic of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership style, an insidious cultural politics some have termed “Brotherhoodization.”